Gemini Dance

No prompt. Written 27 December 2020

She walked the edge of the ballroom, watching as the glittering skirts twirled a mesmerizing swirl. As the music sped up, it became more and more difficult to see the dancer’s faces, and panic rose in her throat. She cursed herself for ever letting her sister come with her, and worse, for losing her in the crowd. She tried screaming her name, but the magic of the place strangled the sound. To find her sister, she had to follow the rules of the place. So she pulled the mask down on her face and stepped into the crowd.

A partner found her not two steps into the dance. She let him lead her around the dance floor, all the while stretching an arm out in an effort to reach her sister. She raised her voice again, this time in song, matching the music, melding with it. Her heart leaps as she hears the voice of her sister join the song. The man dancing with her pulled her closer, and she tried her best to steer him in the direction of her sister’s voice.

They kept singing, even as the music sped up. When their hands finally met, her arm was nearly pulled from its socket as her dancing partner tried to lead her away. She spun out of his arms and grabbed hold of her sister, who adopted the man’s position in the dance. As she did so, her skirt pulled in to form trousers, and soon she wore a midnight blue suit in place of her gown. The two looked at each other and smiled. They had been dancing together all their lives, and together they cut through the crowd with ease.

Old Magic (part 2)

Written 8 October 2020

She never asked his name, only called him “boy” or sometimes simply shouted insults or swears to get his attention. He took no offense from this, and only retaliated by calling her “hag”, a name that merely made her laugh. They were immune to each other’s venom, and fell into an easy routine. The people in the nearby town called him Stehell, stranger. His name was Orea.

He had taken on the responsibility of maintaining her home, and in turn she taught him every bit of magic she knew. She did not tell him how she had learned, and in fact ignored his every attempt at learning of her past.

He only got an answer once, and it had done nothing to sate his curiosity.

“Why the hearts?” he had asked late one night as they fed her garden.

She was silent for so long he thought she would simply ignore him as she always did. Finally, she straightened and cast her eyes to the stars, as if they watched her and knew of all she had done, all she had never told.

“Some magicks are old.” she began softly. “Far older than civilization. Maybe older than men.” He stopped his work and sat down cross-legged in the dirt, giving her his full attention. “Old magic is bloody, Boy.” she growled. “Nature will only give you its power if you give something else in exchange. Something of yourself, usually. But the old ways were not particular. The price was blood, and it cared nothing of whose.” he dared not fill the silence, knowing she wasn’t done.

“If blood is the power, hearts are their source. More than that, hearts hold the magic that keeps us alive, keeps us feeling. The only way to truly kill something is to destroy its heart.” Vines curled around her ankles, not daring to touch her. In the moonlight, she looked ancient, and he could believe that she was as old as the magic she spoke of. “Destroying a heart normally meant throwing it into the fire. Doing so returned the magic to its source.

The silence that followed lasted long enough for his legs to grow numb, but he did not dare make a sound.

“Eating the hearts gave that magic to you. The blood price was paid and the power was incredible. I had many enemies, and I killed all of them. Then I took their power for my own.” Her head sunk back to focus on the garden, and there was a finality in her posture that told him she would say no more tonight, of this or any other topic.

He pushed his questions down and finished his task, silently offering his arm when she struggled up the steps of the garden.

“Impetuous boy.” she grumbled, taking his arm.

“Stubborn hag.” he retorted with a smile, and some of her strange mood lifted.

He refused her help as he went about his nightly chores, and waited until she was fast asleep before creeping out the back of the house and into the forest beyond.

Old Magic (Part 1)

Prompt: she had quit eating hearts a long time ago Written 30 July 2020

The townspeople stayed away from the cottage covered in vines. Erected long before the town, it sat half a mile away from any other building. Many rumors flew about her and her garden. Every plant was poison of some kind, every trespasser killed and their heart eaten.

In truth, she had stopped eating hearts a long time ago, and her garden supplied her with most of her meals. This did not make her safe, however. The vines that sprawled over her land were alive, and hungry, and she kept them that way. Her reputation was earned, and it fueled her peace in her old age. Those heroes who wished to defeat her had died off generations ago, and none had risked her wrath to earn her knowledge.

Until a tall, scrawny, slip of a boy arrived on her doorstep, unarmed and untouched by any of her charms. She stands in her doorway, eyeing the newcomer warily. She notes the point of his ears, counts the bony joints, and watches as his hair floats along a wind she cannot feel.

“What is your business, changeling?” she croaks, her voice dry and soft from underuse.

He smiles, a bit too wide, and a bit too sharp to be human. “Surely your Sight is not so limited that you do not know the answer.”

“My eyes are old.” she snaps. “I do not See as far as I used to.”

“I hoe my journey is not in vain.” he replies. “I would hate to find you are no use to me.”

“We will see, boy.” she turned around and left to her kitchen, not glancing back as he followed, two steps behind. She returned to the herbs she had been grinding, shoving a prickly specimen into his arms. “Separate the spines from the twigs. The rest are on the table. Grind them when that’s done.”

He obeyed without a word. When that task was finished, she directed him in what to combine the herb with, and how to contain them. After that, he cleaned her kitchen as she bustled around it, deftly stepping out of her way as he worked. When she moved her work outside, he took the opportunity to prepare their evening meal.

He was sitting patiently at her table when she came back inside after nightfall. His legs were crossed under him, and he was reading a small book she hadn’t seen with him when he arrived.

“Stew is on the stove. It’s still warm.” he said, setting his book down and moving to serve them both a bowl.

“You have not eaten yet?” she croaked suspiciously.

“It is your home.” he said in answer.

She took the proffered bowl as he returned to his seat. “You are after a mentor.” It was not a question.

“If you wish, I will go hunting tomorrow. Get some meat for supper.” he said.

She examined him again. His hair still floated in a gravity-defying mess, and his clothes were torn and dirty. He held himself with a subtle confidence she didn’t usually see in any his age.

“Easier to run to the market in town. I need eggs and flower, as well.” she said, confirming his unspoken request. “There’s a bed in the attic. Can’t promise it’s clean.” she added.

He rose, offering to take her empty bowl. She passed it to him and stood. She could make use of his strength and youth, she thought. And it had been a long while since she’d seen her kitchen clean, or had meat and bread on her table. For these things, she could teach him her tricks. And if he ate her heart once he surpassed her, then so be it. She had lived long enough already.

The Queen’s Spellcaster

Prompt: When she arrived, all conversation ceased Written 7 October 2020

He had heard so many tales about the Queen’s royal spellcaster that he no longer knew what to expect. The only thing that stayed consistent was her mask, said to be made of bone. It covered her entire face, with two holes for the eyes and a swirling script burned into it in a spiral. Some said the mask covered burns or other scars, others said it was enchanted to detect lies or simply for the mystery of it all. It did not hide her identity, though, because her name was known across the continent and probably farther. He wondered if it was merely to make disguising herself easier. No one remembered her face, so if she simply took the mask off she could easily blend in with the rest of the court, or indeed any other group.

This theory proved false at his first sight of her. She strode into the hall with the confidence of one who had no equal, despite being a mere slip of a girl in a muddied cloak. He forced himself to close his mouth as she strode down the aisle to the throne. She executed a perfect curtsy that somehow held no particular deference to the monarch in front of her.

“Your esteemed Majesty,” the girl said as she rose. “I return to you with urgent news from the border of Elphane.” The courtiers rustled uncomfortably at the mention of the Folk.

The Queen raised a hand to quiet the room, but kept her eyes on the girl before her. “You may speak.”

“The Seelie are discussing pulling their support.” Gasps went up, but when the girl lifted her head towards them, silence returned before the queen could lift her hand. “They saw our work at the Hills as dishonorable. In their eyes, we broke our word.”

“That’s ridiculous!” cried a general. “The deal was struck under false pretenses!”

“Hold your tongue, general.” the queen said firmly. “The Folk are our allies, and we must respect their customs.” she turned back to the spellcaster. “What do you suggest we do?”

“We must propose a treaty to end this war.” More than whispers erupted at this declaration. Many army officials were outraged at the idea. But her majesty did not argue. She waited for silence and then bid the girl continue. “I am not suggesting we surrender. Merely extend an offer in good faith to prove to the Folk that our interest is not in continuing a senseless war.”

“And the Folk?” the queen asked. “Their outrage must be addressed. We must make amends.”

“With all due respect, majesty, we mustn’t.” He stopped trying not to stare. Until this point, the girl had shown the minimum respect to the queen, waiting for her permission to speak and for her majesty to ask for her advice. Now she contradicted the queen directly.

The queen herself, however, didn’t react. Again, she gestured for the girl to continue.

“Any direct effort to appease the Folk will be seen as a shallow attempt to soothe their pride. We did not directly offend them, and as such they are not with whom we must reconcile.”

The queen nodded. “I see. Our enemies will not take the treaty, but it will show the Folk that we are trying to write a wrong. They will be appeased without a formal apology.” He couldn’t help but think that the girl had allowed the queen to finish her explanation in an effort to maintain order. “If that is all, Aminta, you are dismissed. We welcome you home.” the queen said.

Aminta gave a more reverent curtsy and replied, “May your hospitality never run dry.”

It took all of his willpower not to run after her as she left.

Autumn’s King

No prompt. Written 25 December 2020

On the first true day of fall, when the leaves have turned but not yet fallen to the forest floor, the King begins his search. He is unmistakable, shrouded in a cloak and carrying an oak staff. His antlers curl around his head to form a crown that cannot be removed, and his eyes hold the mysteries of what sleeps beneath the earth.

Tonight, when the moon is high and bright in the sky but not yet full, the King will take his staff, march into the center of the forest, and strike it against the seven trees that stand in a circle around him. From these trees will emerge seven maidens. He will ask just one question.

The maidens will join hands and dance a reel around the king, singing of his past journeys and his future demise. The king will ask his question again. The maidens will raise their voices until none else can be heard, and then they will drop to just one voice, the voice of the oldest maiden. As they finished the reel, she will tell the king the first of his clues, the first step he needs to find what he seeks. He will swiftly commit this clue to memory as she sits down and the second maiden reveals the second clue. They do this in turn until the seven maidens are sat in a ring on the forest floor. They will say no more, whether he rails or begs or cries or does none of these. The king will thank them, and they will return to their trees without a glance at him.

As he leaves, their spell will take hold and the king will be left with only the first of the clues in his memory.

It will be well into the season before he leaves the forest, glamoured in the guise of a common traveler. He will move from town to town, searching first for a boy who Sees, then a woman who Makes, and hopefully, finally, the woman he seeks. He will reach the uppermost corner of the land and he will sail into the horizon until the sun sets and rises again.

Now a king outside his kingdom, he will reach an island no other can sail to, and here his trials truly begin.

Armed with only his staff, he will next face a many-limbed goblin, who holds a different item in each hand. The items vary from a sewing thimble to a soldier’s blade to a crown. The king has one chance.

He will not remember his past decisions. He will not remember the right choice. But he will examine the hands and the items they hold, and he will see which items the goblin seems to hide, the ones he stretches out, and he will find the one that the goblin will not look at. He will take the flute, carved from the heartwood of an ancient and magical tree. The goblin will speak his spell and the next clue will be returned to his memory.

He will make his way further inland and reach a place where the path splits. Two of the paths look identical, leading into the woods. One follows a stream that becomes a roaring river, and the last leads up a hill and vanishes into the distance.

He does not remember that the woods are home to vines that would drag him beneath the earth he elsewhere would find his home. He does not see the creatures lurking beneath the water, waiting to drag him under. He knows only the clue, and it is this which he follows.

As winter falls and his yearly journey comes to a close, he will be greeted at last by the one he has searched for this and every autumn.

She runs to him, gossamer skirt billowing, and he catches her in his arms with a gleeful cry.

It is at this very moment that the first winter snow will start to fall, and the couple will make their home for the coming season, until spring ends and they are separated once more.

Musings 3: Message and Escapism

Some stories have a message, a lesson to teach. Some do not, and they are equally important. These stories provide entertainment, and escape from a world that needs lessons taught and morals shouted from pages.

Of these two brands, I am afraid I only ever write the one. My stories hold no grand truth or important message. If those are things you search for, I must recommend you go elsewhere. My words are not so profound. I write to go on adventures, and to allow people to join me on them.

I am not here to argue that escapism is dying, or that it is more important than writing with a message in mind. I don’t believe either of those things are true. Both styles of writing are equally important.

Maybe I sound pretentious, claiming that escapism is as important as having a message. But humans need mindless fun, things that make them happy, with no other purpose. That’s why I read, and it’s why I write.

The Forest

No prompt Written 22 December 2020

Before you enter the forest, stop a moment and take note of the wind, the sun’s position in the sky, the sway of the trees. Before you set foot in the shade, to hunt or hide or fight, you must check to see whose territory you are entering.

If the sun is high, shedding its warmth on your scalp and shoulders, and the wind skips gleefully along the stream, you are safe. On humid summer days filled with buzzing insects, you are free to take refuge in the shadow of the ancient wood. For the spring is a new beginning, a bringer of light, and belongs to humanity. Mother Earth embraces you gently, nurtures your crops and fills your stores with meat.

Be wary, though, if the sun is shrouded in clouds, if the wind cries out in mourning, or the rain comes down like waves. The summer sun is kind and gentle, but even a Mother must be strict, and Mother Earth has many children. Storms are for the witches, the spellcasters in gossamer nightgowns. They gather under the moon, cloaked in fog, skin prickled in goosebumps, as they call down the water and lightning from the sky. If you are careful, if you are polite, they may let you pass. Do not hunt on these nights. To take from the forest while it belongs to the witches is to invite the worst of trouble.

But here I warn you, never enter the forest when the snow falls thick, the trees stand barren, and the wind howls like a pack of hungry wolves. Winter belongs to neither man nor beast. Mother Earth is asleep, and she will not protect you should you dare step foot inside the world of spirits. Should your travel require you go near the forest, keep your eyes on the path ahead and leave an offering at every tree you pass beneath. Be respectful of any living thing you meet, and say nothing to the man with antlers curved about his head like a crown.

Musings 2: The First Line

They say the first line, first paragraph, first page, is the most important part of your book. They’re wrong.

You don’t write an engaging, fun, interesting “first” part, and then get lazy the rest of the way. The entire book should be the most interesting. You don’t want your reader to say “The first page was my favorite part”, you want it to be hard for them to decide. You want them to say they love the characters, the dialogue, the worldbuilding. If their favorite part is the beginning, you’re doing it wrong.

The idea that you need a perfect hook is a reasonable one. You want people to pick up your book and want to read it as soon as they open it. It is, ultimately, a sales tactic. And plenty of authors and publishers who know a lot more than me will tell you that your job is to sell your book. I disagree.

Your job is, first and foremost, to write your book. Tell your story. That’s it. You’ll never write a hook that makes your story impossible to put down. You do that for the entire book. More than that, though, you will never write a single sentence that is capable of catching the interest of everyone. Because stories are personal, and they’re meant to be personal.

The whole book should be engaging. I don’t mean constant tension, I mean constant fun. You have to build up and release the tension in waves, and you have to make it enjoyable to read, not stressful. I don’t quote the lines that broke my heart or scared me. I quote the ones that inspired me or made me laugh.

There’s a balance you have to strike, to make the readers care. And you cannot make every single person who reads your story care. People are individuals, and there is not a single topic that every person on this planet can agree on. So I think we’re focusing too much on how many people we can reach. Don’t water down your writing to please a wider audience.

Of the Sea (version 2)

Prompt: “I’ll come meet you where the stars meet the sea” alternate version of previous post. Feel free to let me know which you prefer. Written 8 September 2020

It was the last thing he’d said to me, before he left with them, in the middle of the night. They didn’t look at me, only flanked him as if he were very valuable. Or very dangerous.

I hadn’t known what he’d meant, that night as he leaned down and kissed me goodbye. But the moment they left I shot out of bed and got to work.

I had seen enough of the world that I knew it wasn’t as simple as finding a boat and sailing towards the horizon. I started by studying the path the stars follow, charting each constellation’s steady crawl over the sky. I called on every contact I had, presenting the words as a riddle. I was told about the rise and fall of the waves, of ocean currents and moon phases. When I thought to map the currents in relation to the movement of the constellations, I thought I had cracked it. I was wrong. I had examined every possible convergence of these things, and still did not find him.

I did not stay put. I sailed to each promising set of coordinates, and personally visited anyone in the world who I thought could give me the information that would allow me to find him. I sought out spellweavers who taught me how to pull magic from the night, scholars who showed me exactly how each current swept its course, and found myself in the company of gentleman and pirates, shades and ogres and a sphinx. I learned much of the world and of magic, but still I did not know how to reach the one place in the world I desperately wanted to go. I sat at the feet of dragons, fought back to back with things not quite human, and made many friends and enemies.

Still I did not find him.

Years passed as I searched, with no true answer in sight. Then I met the moonsmith, and a glimmer of hope returned.

She was remarkably young, maybe fourteen years old, with long, thin fingers and thin hair. I was travelling alone when I met her in the forest on a moonless night.

I was following a rumor of a spirit said to grant wisdom. Instead I ran into her. More specifically, I nearly stepped on her as she crawled out from under a bush. I tripped over myself in my effort to miss her, and yelped as I crashed to the ground. She had a knife in her hand as she helped me up.

She led me to her home, and I found myself telling her my tale, her eyes a gold that bordered on orange. Had they been that color a moment ago? Surely, if they had glowed that brightly I would have seen her sooner.

Her eyes turned gray as I finished my tale. I stared, but she offered no explanation, instead handing me a steaming mug. Her house was warm and organized, beads and string and wire of every color lining the walls. She snipped a length of wire as she sat down, and twisted it in her fingers, occasionally reaching for a bead or delicate tool. I watched in silence, entranced.

In mere moments, she held a delicate pendant in the shape of a rolling wave, wrapped around a moonstone, and held it out to me. I took it lightly.

She stood. “I’ll get you a cord for it. I’d keep it around your neck, if I were you. Though your wrist would work almost as well.”

“Neck is fine.” I said hesitantly. “I trust your judgement.”

She chuckled. “Welcome to the home of the Moonsmith. Crafter of amulets and ambassador to stars.”

I nearly dropped the pendant. “What?”

She took the pendant from my open palm, tied the cord to it, and settled it around my neck before answering. “I make amulets for the stars. And I can help you find where they meet the sea.”

Of the Sea (version 1)

No prompt. This is a first version of an idea I had been playing with at the time. The next version (the one I prefer) will be published next. Written 24 August 2020

She lived with her husband on an island ten miles from the mainland.

Perhaps “island” is too grand a word, for it held enough space for a house, a spacious garden, a copse of trees and no more. Her husband was a sea-loving man who made his living as a sailor in the trade season and a fisher the rest of the year. He had built the house on the island for her as a present on their wedding day. But she loathed the ocean. Its chopping waves and salty spray turned her stomach, and so he completed his gift with a border of trees so thick she could pretend she was still on the mainland.

As he worked in water, she worked in earth, selling the surplus of her garden, from vegetables and herbs to those with more magical uses. Much of it, though, she saved to feed her spells, which she bottled and hawked at market with the rest.

The strangeness of their home brought the Fair Folk, bargaining for her expertise and use of her husband’s ship. The couple declined as long as they could, trying to buy time enough to properly ensure their safety.

But a year in, his trade routes went bad, and his luck in fishing turned as nets tore, lines snapped, and the schools were driven away. If they suspected the Folk of anything, they kept quiet about it, and agreed to their demands.

Their bargaining with the Fey took her husband farther out to sea than ever before, leaving her alone with her spells for longer, at the mercy of those who would have her magic.

The couple knew the Rules, though. They ate and drank only what they had prepared themselves, and before every voyage she extracted a promise that no harm would come to her husband. Each time, she worded it carefully and clearly, and each time, she imagined the loopholes they might exploit as she sat at home.

These promises kept them both safe. Until, of course, they didn’t.

It was early on a summer morning, and she was working in their garden by the first light of dawn. Her husband had just dressed and readied for the day. He was set to start another voyage that evening.

She knew something was amiss when he didn’t meet her for breakfast. Her next clue was that, for the first time in years, their island was not occupied by a single Fey. When she went to the deck and found it empty, she raced back up the path and into her home, ransacking it in her efforts to find all she needed.

The thing she had feared for so long finally came. They had taken him. She didn’t know why they wanted him, but so close to Midsummer she knew he could be lost forever in no time at all.

Armed with a staff, a green cloak, and a bag full of spells, she willed her trees into an arch, into which she threw bottle after bottle, chanting all the while. She drew a silver blade across her arm, and threw that, too. It disappeared as it passed through the arch. She downed a potion that would keep her on her feet, and at last threw herself through the wobbling portal, still bleeding.

She found herself on a beach, mere steps away from an alabaster palace. It did not smell of brine, and the sand was alarmingly soft beneath her feet. The discovery unsettled her. For all her hate for these things, her husband loved them, and she found in their absence that perhaps she had grown to love them, too.

She gained her bearings and set off towards the palace, but the beach was far from empty.